A practice called “student recycling” has emerged as one of the rorts used by unscrupulous education visa agents and registered training organisations in the troubled vocational education sector.
The International Education Association of Australia said education agents enrol overseas students in a university or an RTO. If the student struggles with their classes, the agents approach them again and offer to enrol them in a more suitable college.
What the student doesn’t know is the agent gets a commission on the second enrolment, which can be as much as 40 per cent of the student fee.
Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the education association, said there were “scores” of dodgy providers and agents.
“Another rort is where a private provider is registered to offer both university-level qualifications as well as vocational training and it will poach a student from a university, saying it’s registered to teach uni courses, but enrol them in a vocational program,” he said.
Enticing students to switch
Mr Honeywood said that, in a throwback to the debacle of VET-FEE Help in 2015 when millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money was lost to unethical training companies, agents were working at railway stations and other public places to get business from dissatisfied students. This included offering iPads and other kickbacks to persuade them to switch.
“Ironically, Australia is viewed by competitor countries as having world’s best practice. But what’s happening is a failure of policy in regulation of the industry,” he said.
Mr Honeywood said the failure was partly on the part of the regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, and partly due to underfunding of ASQA by the government “over many years”.
The chief commissioner at ASQA, Mark Paterson, said three years ago it switched its focus from complaint-based assessments to “risk-based assessment” where it dealt with known problem colleges. ASQA had increased the cancellation rate of training organisations by 157 per cent between 2016-17 and 2017-18, he said.
Mr Paterson said the bulk of training organisations were committed to their students but ASQA did not have consumer protection powers and international students needed to resort to the Overseas Students Ombudsman.
The ombudsman’s office said it had received 999 complaints from students in 2017-18 regarding issues ranging from “refusal to transfer between education providers” to “monitoring attendance”.
But a spokesman said the ombudsman was not a regulator and ASQA should consider complaints about registered training organisations that had not met their obligations.
The latest round of problems in the vocational sector was put in the spotlight this week when The Australian Financial Review revealed the existence of “ghost schools” where international students do a minium of study, or no study at all, while working in full-time jobs. They can do this because they are not required to report attendance figures.
The Council of International Students of Australia said instead of waiting for regulation to catch up with practices, there were some quick fixes that should be put in place immediately.
National president of the council Bijay Sapkota said some students came to Australia with the intention of studying and working so they could send money home. There was nothing wrong with that unless it made students miserable, he said.
Mr Sapkota said the names of providers who also owned education agents should be disclosed on a public register, given the potential conflict of interest
“The dodgy providers and dodgy agents work together. They often come from the same [ethnic] community as the students, which makes it hard for the student to know who is reliable,” he said.
Call for more action
The government published a list of the “good agents” but this was not enough, he said. Would-be students should have access to an information pack stating their rights and where they might get into trouble in Australia.
“There are many genuine students who come here from overseas where they’ve worked really hard to get into the best colleges at home and they come here and sometimes get taught by very ordinary training colleges,” Mr Sapkota said.
The organisation that represents training organisations, the Australian Council for Private Education and Training (ACPET) said there were more than 4100 training organisations in Australia, of which 800 were members of the organisation.
National chairman Bruce Callaghan said: “About 20 per cent of providers are excellent, probably another 60 per cent are good and there is 20 per cent where scrutiny is required.”
He said the regulator should make it mandatory for training organisations to report student attendance and student progress.